Options expand for outdoor entertaining

The way in which Americans use their outdoor spaces at home has evolved to an incredible extent over the past 70 years since GIs returned from World War II. Northwest Metalcraft in downtown Arlington Heights has witnessed and participated in all of that change - even the entrance of a high-end clothing designer Tommy Bahama into the outdoor furniture business.

Northwest Metalcraft was opened by Ed and Irene Mayer when Ed returned from World War II. He originally set up a wrought iron repair shop in barns on the property, but he was always looking for ways to expand his business.

One day Irene purchased a patio set for the family and set it up on the yard. When someone drove by and offered to buy it, Ed sold it and quickly told Irene to buy a few more sets.

"That is how they got into the patio furniture business," their son and current owner, Dan Mayer, recalled. "He continued to make wrought iron rails, etc., but gradually got into the fireplace business to supplement the patio furniture business."

In the 1960s, the Mayers added a large selection of grills to their inventory to capitalize on the outdoor grilling craze and before long, they were running gas lines to gas grills and fully installing fireplaces for homeowners. Today the business carries outdoor furniture from about 15 manufacturers. The outdoor dining sets, Mayer said, are made of everything from aluminum to teak to wicker, wrought iron and recycled plastic. The large ones that seat 10 or 12 people are particularly hot sellers.

"If you have a big house and a big family, you want everyone to be able to sit down and enjoy a meal at the same table," he explained.

But after you have eaten on the deck or patio, you might want to adjourn to more comfortable seating for the remainder of the gathering.

"People long to get outside in the fresh air and relax when they aren't working. So they are trying to take the whole indoor experience outside," Mayer said. "I would estimate that 70 percent of the furniture I sell now is the deep-seating kind. The other 30 percent is for dining."

The development of deep-seating, or cushioned, outdoor furniture made of an all-weather resin wicker material that is carefully woven over aluminum frames, has made it possible to keep this furniture outside even in our Chicago climate. The thick cushions are also fully weatherproof and may be left outside.

"It can be really magical to sit outside, especially around a fire pit or fireplace, and have a great conversation with your friends. And if you invest in torches or the lanterns that use alcohol gel, you can make your yard look like a resort. They really look cool and add to the ambience," Mayer said.

Outdoor fireplaces are also wildly popular with homeowners who choose to have either wood-burning or gas fireplaces (masonry or prefabricated) and fire pits constructed in many yards.

"Many women don't like the smell of smoke, so they choose to have a fireplace fueled by either propane or natural gas and we put stones, ceramic logs, broken glass or geometric shapes in the fireplace to enhance the look of the fire, just like what we can do for an indoor fireplace. We are even able to run the gas line from the house if the homeowner wants to use natural gas," he said.

In addition, Northwest Metalcraft sells a wide variety of outdoor cooking-related items. In fact, that includes entire outdoor kitchens, complete with a refrigerator, warming drawers, cabinets and counter space, which are becoming popular in the Midwest. No longer content to simply grill outside, many homeowners are choosing to fully prepare their meals outside.

Those who are not interested in something that extensive opt for traditional grills, often supplemented by ceramic smokers and cookers that slow cook items like roasts and chickens year-round. Northwest Metalcraft sells Kamado Joe cookers that burn lump charcoal, as well as pellet grills such as those by Memphis Grill and Smokin' Brothers, which burn a variety of wood pellets.

"They come with electronics that let you set a timer and just leave it. It makes you an awesome cook," Mayer said. "This year we even have a traveling grill display on a trailer that we can bring out to people's homes by appointment so that people can see them at their own home."

Of course, Northwest Metalcraft also sells the traditional charcoal-burning Weber grills and infrared gills that sear in the juices, thus preserving the flavor of meats.

"Some people have so much outdoor space they can easily have more than one outdoor 'room' with a dining area, a cooking or kitchen area and a separate lounging area, with or without a fire pit, and by doing this, they are adding value to their homes," Mayer said.

Heaters, both electric and propane, which extend the season for patios and decks, are also gaining in popularity. With the flip of a switch or the use of a remote control, you can have great heat coverage over a large area - and very unobtrusively, Mayer added. The electric ones cost much less to operate than the propane heaters, he added, and there are no tanks to refill so they are swiftly supplanting the propane ones in popularity.

Finally, Northwest Metalcraft also sells a wide range of table and cantilevered umbrellas, mailboxes, indoor fireplaces and fireplace accessories.

People want to spend as much of their precious free time as possible outdoors, so they are choosing to make full use of their outdoor patios, decks and screened porches. When the warm weather finally arrives in the Chicago area, they want be out there every possible moment, Mayer said.

Northwest Metalcraft is located at 413 S. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights. For more information, call (847) 253-1905 or visit

  A patio set is displayed at the front window of Northwest Metalcraft on Arlington Heights Road. Joe Lewnard/
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